There are possibilities that Ajinkya Rahane might sit out in the first Test against West Indies. It has happened before in South Africa in 2018 when Virat Kohli picked Rohit Sharma over the Indian Test vice-captain. Yet again, it is Rohit who may beat Rahane for No 5 spot in the batting order. Rohit has been in superb touch and while his scores in the Caribbean during the limited-overs stint were low, his strokes oozed the same confidence that he had during World Cup.
Once a certain starter in India XI in Tests, Rahane now seems to be running out of time. He may well have used all his lifelines to stay afloat in the India Test squad.
In the last 28 Test innings, the Mumbai batsman has scored just 696 runs over the course of two years. This stat is worrying for a regular India No 5 batsman and it has long been creating headaches the management. However, consistent good shows by the team has helped distract the attention of the management. As a result, we see Rahane still prevailing.
However, the West Indies Test series might change things if Rahane does not prove his worth to the team if given a chance. Not to forget, in the last couple of years, it is just him who has avoided the axe. Murali Vijay has been shown the door for no show; Shikhar Dhawan was dropped after series of failures in England. Even Rohit, who has not done anything drastically bad, has been checking in and checking out. In fact, in the last two years, in the same period where Rahane has suffered with the bat, Rohit has played 11 innings for India, hitting one century, three fifties and a score of 47.
Rahane's image as a dependable batsman has taken a hit match after match in this period. So what has been his issue with the bat?
In four out of the six innings he batted in Australia, he got out while trying to be too aggressive for his own liking. One other way to look at it is he has not been able to execute those shots well. But does the problem stop here? Guess, not.
In the first innings of the first Test, Rahane started off well, with nice forward defences and leaves, he appeared set after a while before Josh Hazlewood pitched one full and swung it away. Rahane was lured into it and attempted to drive the ball with hard hands and ended up giving a catch to second slip. In the second innings, he was well settled on 70 when he attempted a reverse-sweep against Nathan Lyon who had created many problems for Rahane till that point. That shot was sort of get-out-of-the jail attempt by him but it did not pay off. Rahane had scored 13 off 31 in first innings, and 70 off 147 balls in the second. His susceptibility to falling at different stages of a batting innings remained quite high while playing an aggressive shot.
One more highlight in the nature of his fall was the deliveries on which he got out. Hazlewood got him twice and on both the occasions, he had pitched it fuller and provided width. Cummins bowled one down the leg side, which Rahane tried to hit to fine leg but ended up edging it to a diving Paine. Pacers were not really an issue for him at least in Australia. He gave his wickets to them rather than getting foxed by the good deliveries. His dismissals had more to do with what his instincts tell him to do than his technique.
Against Lyon, he looked in trouble almost every time he batted against the spinner. He was more often than not stuck between back-foot and front-foot play and that gave Lyon enough room to trouble him. Rahane either pushed him lazily or was in two minds when it came to using his legs against spin.
What this meant is that Rahane's dismissal pattern against pacers had not changed much from England, where he got out chasing the ball on many occasions.
In England, he was out edging the ball or hitting it straight to the fielder on the offside five times out of ten innings. In the first Test, when he chased a wide delivery off Sam Curran, he ended up inside-edging it to the keeper. In the first innings of the second Test, James Anderson kept him busy on back-foot before luring him with wide of the off stump loosener which Rahane edged to first slip. In the second innings, Stuart Broad bowled on the same template and got Rahane. This mode of dismissal was repeated again two more times.
The English fast bowlers, especially Ben Stokes, disturbed him with in-swingers, something which Rahane worked hard to counter and it showed in Australia with his defences. However, his tendency to chase wide outswingers spelt his doom. Spinners Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali kept pushing him on back-foot, getting him trapped in front of the stumps. To fight that weakness, Rahane got out sweeping once as well.
And it is here, a presumption can be made that faults don't lie in his technique but his cluttered mind when he is batting. The basics of cricket become a puzzle when you see them as a puzzle. This puzzle can be solved with patience. In Test cricket, patience is not merely a capacity, it becomes a skill. It is one skill that can never be practised in nets.
What Rahane needs to do is to set small targets. The bigger objectives are not getting him anywhere. They are only cluttering his mind. Making him chase the wide ball outside the off stump. Making him attempt reverse-sweep against someone like Lyon. Making him miss a wrong'un from a leggie and play it on the back foot. In a nutshell, it is making him take the short-cut to his elusive tenth Test hundred, that awaits him for two years. He needs to readdress the road to it. It might not come through a flurry of boundaries. It may come through a day of hard grind. And that day may decide how his next two years will look.
All of that can be done if he gets the chance in Guyana. If Rohit Sharma gets the go-ahead on 22 August and if carries his World Cup form to the whites, it may well be the end of the road for Rahane for now. Too many ifs before Rahane subsides his own doubts and rediscovers his old self.
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